Darned if you do or don’t

Published 9:47 am Saturday, August 7, 2010

I don’t envy Jim Councill — or, for that matter, Philip Bradshaw, Dallas Jones and others who are the face of their localities’ leadership.

These are sensitive times in Western Tidewater. Our anchor employer is gone. Thousands of people are unemployed. Home foreclosures are soaring. Families are teetering on the edge of insolvency. People are scared. They are looking to their community leaders for encouragement, for empathy and for hope.

Fair or not, top leadership is under a microscope. Every word matters, as does every action — and inaction.

Councill, an honorable man who has helped steer Franklin through a number of crises over the past couple of decades, ruffled some feathers with his characterization of the closure of International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill as “just a hiccup” for a community that has a very bright future. I read his remarks and didn’t find them controversial, especially in the context in which they were delivered: Councill was addressing the opening session of a Virginia Main Street workshop and an audience of visitors from across the state. He was promoting Franklin, as a good mayor should.

A letter writer on this page (“She says mayor’s remarks insult mill workers,” Friday, Aug. 6) took exception with “hiccup.”

“Belittling, arrogant and thoughtless,” she wrote, and a disservice to mill workers and their families who are suffering.

I won’t criticize the letter writer, whose opinion counts as much as mine. I do sympathize with leaders who have to find just the right words in a time of community crisis — much like I struggle with what to say to a friend who has lost a spouse or child.

Leaders can’t succumb to negativity or pessimism. If Jim Councill doesn’t believe with great conviction that Franklin will survive and thrive again, he doesn’t need to be our mayor. I know him well enough to know that he believes passionately in Franklin’s future. There was no false optimism in the words uttered to the Main Street visitors. Franklin is open for business, he declared, and will rebound.

On the other hand, effective leaders don’t sugarcoat adversity. Community leaders should “keep it real,” to borrow from the modern vernacular. Platitudes don’t help someone who needs a job.

Most important, people expect their leaders to be active and visible. Many families who love this community are grappling with whether to stay here or to move away in search of employment. They are inclined to stay and perhaps commute for a while at a reduced income — in hopes that a local job will be available down the road.

To do so, they need tangible reasons to be hopeful. It is imperative that the community’s leadership provide it.

Since making an early splash in the wake of the mill closure announcement last fall, the economic recovery task force — encompassing top leadership from Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County — has been largely invisible to the taxpaying public in recent months. As have Franklin-Southampton Economic Development and the Isle of Wight Economic Development Department.

That’s not to say those groups aren’t working hard. I have every reason to think they are. But people need to see it. They need reason for encouragement.

Several months ago, our newspaper offered to the economic recovery task force as much space as they needed and as regularly as they wanted it on this page to communicate their activities to the community. We agreed on a guest column every other Sunday from a task force member. It lasted three issues. The updates stopped coming. That’s unfortunate.

People understand that many aspects of economic development require confidentiality. For obvious reasons, community leaders can’t talk publicly about a specific company they are courting. There’s much they can say, however.

How many companies are they in communication with? How many short lists are we on? How many prospective employers have visited the area in the past month? What’s being done to make the community more attractive to prospective employers? What’s being done to encourage expansion by existing employers? What’s being done to make the community’s regulatory environment more business friendly? What is the long-term plan for job creation outside of mill repurposing? Any initiatives to encourage homegrown manufacturing jobs? What are the alternatives to chasing smokestacks and warehouses?

It’s been suggested on this page and elsewhere that retirement living has great potential as an economic engine. How about it, community leaders?

The people need to hear from you.